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How undisciplined is this year’s Buffalo Bills team?

Putting penalties into a decade of context

Occasionally something spurs the curiosity of fans that’s a bit unusual. This year many of you have been wondering the same thing. With all the yellow laundry flying, is this one of the most undisciplined Buffalo Bills teams? Well, well, well...

Look who’s come crawling back to the Buffalo Rumblings penalty expert. Good thing I dig these questions as much as you all do. Let’s dive in. Way, waaaaaaay deeper than anyone else dares.

NOTE: Special shoutout to NFLpenalties.com, which is the most comprehensive penalty data site out there. Love you lots!


The Usual Metrics

I went back a decade, which brings us all the way back to 2012. I chose a decade because it’s a nice clean number and it gives us a Chan Gailey year—and as bad as those teams could be he’s a really likable guy, and it’s good to remember your roots (lovable losers). I’ll stick to just a few points here because of course this is the tip of the stats iceberg.

  • I used per-game numbers where I could to make things direct comparisons.
  • This year’s McDermott team is considerably worse than last year’s, but pretty much on par with 2018 and 2019.
  • A lot of you asking were comparing McDermott to Rex Ryan. I repeat, Rex Ryan’s wristband stunts WORKED! The team was on pace to set penalty records, finished the year better and had a pretty normal second year.
  • Marrone was known as a disciplinarian but was just as bad as Rex (once Ryan addressed the issue) and pretty equivalent to McDermott.
  • Flags thrown includes offset and declined. Feel free to peruse that and yards, but they closely mirror the assessed count for the most part.

The main takeaway so far is that McDermott’s first year was pretty good, last year was excellent and this year is his worst so far. However, this year is still striking distance of his normal and penalties tend to decline over the year, which means this could go down and look shockingly similar to 2018/2019. The second takeaway is that Marrone is usually WORSE than Rex Ryan. Or at least the post-wristband Ryan team.

Most Common Penalties

Raw counts might not be the best indicator however. So I decided to look at the three most common penalty types for each coach. This year’s team has an asterisk next to the numbers because they’re projected for a full regular season. Here are my takeaways.

  • Except for Ryan’s 2016 season, every single coach has offensive holding and false starts as their two most common flags.
  • The above fact is actually further proof that Ryan had a positive impact on the team (regarding penalties at least) as he was the only one to actually change the trend. On the other hand...
  • Defensive pass interference and defensive holding round our the top three for just about everyone. One exception is Ryan’s 2016 season where delay of game was a big thing. That suggests frequent confusion on offense, which ain’t good.
  • McDermott also bucks the trend a bit with offsides as his number three in 2019.

Overall there are shocking similarities in the big three for each coach. The only coach we know made a concerted effort to reduce penalties is the only one to truly buck the trend. The big three are pretty common across the league, so really none of this is shocking.

Take your pick on which penalties indicate “discipline” issues more. For me, I think false start is more of a discipline issue as it’s all about practice and timing. Offensive holding can be semi-dictated by opponent and circumstance. But really, take your pick it’s just different types of discipline.

Comparison to League Averages

♪ I know something you don’t know ♪

Well now you do. And I’ve even stated this a couple times. A major component of the impression that this year’s team is catastrophically worse than other teams is because 2020 spoiled us fans. I mean seriously, just take a look at that ****. League-wide, penalties have been pretty stable since 2014. Last year was such an anomaly it basically told our normal perception to **** off. I’m convinced it’s the reason this question has come up numerous times with Bills fans and why NFL fans in general have been railing against the officials this year. Some more thoughts...

  • Even Gailey was above average. The only coach that wasn’t was McDermott in his first year.
  • 2020 McDermott was a slight improvement over the two years before.
  • This year’s McDermott team is actually his worst so far, so there is some validity to the idea that they’ve gotten worse. I will caution again though that we’re only midseason and there’s a chance this will decrease per usual trends. Especially if the Bills go deep in the playoffs where the refs tend to keep it in their pants more.
  • Rex Ryan’s first year was definitively the worst in the decade span. His second year is one of the best. Again, the man was very flawed as a head coach but when he decided to fix the penalty issue he really did get results.
  • Marrone really deserves more grief than he gets already.

Harm and Related Stats

♫ I know something else that you don’t know ♫

I’ve been doing penalty harm since Ryan’s second year. Five and a half years of proprietary penalty stats. Where has the time gone? That doesn’t cover our full range though, so I need to let you all in on a little secret. The NFL is a lot smarter about data collection than they let on. They track “Nullified Yards” and “1st Downs” by penalty, but it’s not in an easy-to-find place. I dug it up so we could have some common advanced penalty stats for the full decade. I’ll separate the sections though, because I do things a bit different than they do.

Harm:

  • I wanted to check this, as “discipline” should also evoke game context. You should be attuned to the fact it’s a third down for instance and be more careful to avoid a defensive holding flag. Basically, are certain teams better at avoiding penalties “at the worst time?”
  • Using this standard, McDermott’s year one suddenly doesn’t look so good. They avoid the raw numbers of the other years, but have an elevated harm.
  • Last season had a similar phenomena, with harm being pretty consistent despite drastically lower counts.
  • Essentially, even when McDermott can keep the volume down, it’s not really keeping the impact down (assuming you have faith in my metric).
  • Most years, McDermott’s teams have been remarkably consistent with Rex Ryan’s good year.

The NFL’s Data:

“Nullified Yards” only counts yards that are negated on offense and special teams. It’s generally pretty close to what I measure with “Negated Yards”—with the exception that I do calculate the difference in yards on defensive flags. Similarly, “1st Downs” as counted by the NFL seems to only count defensive flags whereas I calculate offensive flags that negate downs as well. Additionally, they only calculate the number of automatic first downs given. I count the difference in downs. Example: On a third-down DPI they’d tally a “1” and I’d tally it as “2.”

  • Doug Marrone’s defenses LOOOOOOVED giving up free downs. That dude remains the absolute worst. His first year was really elevated with yards and his second year was pretty low for our decade of Bills teams.
  • Rex Ryan’s first year was bad on both counts but pretty on par with Marrone’s first year. His second year looks a lot like a normal McDermott year.
  • McDermott overall is pretty steady, with a slight dip in yards during the 2019 season.
  • The 2021 stats are NOT projected. That means the Bills are nullifying yards and giving up way more first downs than you’d like to see.
  • On the yards, this does include the 72-yard touchdown return that was negated, which is a bit fluky. It’s likely the Bills really don’t have a major issue there.
  • The first downs likely represent a real problem. That projects to about 50 flags that will give an automatic first down during the regular season (or 46 in a 16-game season for comparison’s sake). That’s a ton of extended drives.

Summary

I’ll keep this quick as we’re about to break 1,400 words on penalties of all things. For volume stats, this year’s team really isn’t that far out of whack from the normal and there’s a good chance the volume stats will shrink as the year goes on.

Using advanced stats, there are some real problems. The timing of penalties seems to be a really big issue this year. If anything this might be a source of hope. If the team normalizes even a bit, it should lead to less opportunities for opposing offenses in particular.

Finally, a lot of people like to compare this to the Rex Ryan days. Please stop. Ryan’s first year was bad but in many ways comparable to Marrone’s first year. Ryan’s second year was a remarkable turnaround. There are plenty of reasons to trash Rex, but he really did clean this up drastically. Further, when he was focused on this aspect of the team he wasn’t any worse than a typical McDermott year. For anyone comparing the 2021 Bills to the Rex era, you’d be just as well off making comparisons to the 2018 and 2019 seasons (or all four other McDermott years for the advanced measures).